Forgiving public sin


Two famous people made the news this week because of their public sin.  Michael Phelps, Olympic gold medal swimmer, was photographed smoking a glass marijuana pipe.  And, Ted Haggard made the talk show rounds telling Larry King that his public appearances are helping heal the wounds from his transgressions made public.

Both accounts disturb me.  I do realize that I’m in the forgiveness business, and that preachers hold out the hope of forgiveness each week from pulpits around the world.  But there is something about the way we in America deal with public sin that disturbs me.  Both Phelps and Haggard have recently issued public statements acknowledging their wrong-doing and apologizing for their behaviors.  Should that be it?  Should we, the public, accept their weak explanations and their routine apologies, let bygones be bygones, and all move on?

I don’t think so.  While Ted Haggard may say God has forgiven him, Haggard sullies the work of ministry with his attempts to explain his sin as confusion over his sexual orientation.  Fine, if that is really true, but work out your inner demons privately, not in our living rooms. Some are also suggesting that Haggard is trying to monetize his notoriety.  His HBO documentary debuts this week, and he’s open to public speaking, he told his interviewers.  So far, I don’t think Haggard has anything to say.  His rehabilitation is suspect, his apology self-serving, and his return to the kleig lights is much too soon.

Phelps disappoints because we have seen his story before.  In Michael Vick.  In every kid who flies high and then crashes to the ground, brought down not by the heat of the sun on his Icarus’ wings, but by his own arrogance and self-conceit.  Phelps apology that he acted youthfully is an insult.  He acted criminally, and if he were a poor ethnic kid on the street corner of a major US city caught smoking pot, he’d be in jail right now.  Sorry Michael, not all Olympic medalists smoke pot at a college frat party after winning a chestful of gold medals representing the hopes of the United States.

So, I’m not in a very forgiving mood tonight.  At least not for these two very public figures.  Am I wrong? Did I miss something in both of these cases?  What do you think?

15 thoughts on “Forgiving public sin”

  1. I echo your feelings and thoughts on this situation. It seems that if you have achieved some level of perceived success in the eyes of our culture then you are granted “diplomatic immunity” when it comes to moral and ethical failure. I do hope that we that are called to share the Good News will understand that we also have a responsibility to speak the truth in love and be the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. – Jimmy

  2. the devil loves it when things like this happen. Haggard gives one more black eye to the church while Phelps sends a negative message to young children who look up to him, that you can have it all…including the party life. The media loves this stuff too and only adds to the hype. If Phelps were an ordinary college kid he wouldn’t be on the front page of the tabloids with his lips wrapped around a bong. Like you said, we’ve seen it before…young celebs crash and burn. I pray for both of them though!

  3. While both are upsetting Haggard’s troubles me more because he is a repeat offender. Phelps is frustrating and shouldn’t be excused because he just made a dumb mistake. He needs to do more than just say I’m sorry because teens and kids look up to him.

  4. With Haggard, I say you’re spot on. I’ve read several pieces on him lately and it all seems well timed for him to come out of the hole and start telling his story right as his story is about to be told to make money. Ted also seems to be avoiding an apology of any real kind and is pointing lots of fingers outward about why he did what he did. Sin is, of course, sin and forgiveness is up to God. But I think Ted isn’t seeking forgiveness as much as he’s seeking affirmation that all of this problems were out beyond his control.

    On Phelps, I’ve got to use a different standard and take a completely different stance from yours. Michael Phelps is a kid. We forget just how young he is and how young he was when he first sprang into our living rooms. I hope he learns from this. But, as we all know, at this age the Superman complex is pretty strong and it’s hard to see how a dumb decision (smoking dope in a room full of kids with cellphone cameras?) can grow way out of proportion. Now, I wonder if anybody has pictures of the kid who likely sold this picture for thousands of dollars and if he/she took a turn at the pipe?

    Phelps is a kid. He is not, I think, comparable to Michael Vick. Vick lived in a strange bubble of his own creation and the signs of trouble with him extended long before his final crumble at the hands of law enforcement. His brother didn’t even make it as far as that and, sad to say, his brother was as or more physically gifted. Vick was a man when his crash came. One who had for several years continued to crash and burn and be allowed to do so.

    The test here, obviously, is how Phelps comes out on the other side. Is the pattern beginning or is this where the brakes get put on.

    No, I have to disagree on a young man like this (perhaps it’s because I’m the father of a college boy) for many reasons. But on Haggard, I agree that the insincerity seems to drip as much now as, in retrospect, it did before his fall.


  5. One of the forgiveness lessons I work on with my kids is this: apologize, yes, but then ask, “How can I make it better?” With Ted Haggard, I don’t see an attempt to right his wrongs, only, as you said, justify them publicly and save face. Repentance has nothing to do with saving face! To make amends I think he would have to remove himself from the limelight, deal with his demons, and then enter the world again as a very humbled man. God could use that humility in so many ways.

    With Michael Phelps, I think he is not so young that he can’t be held accountable for his actions, but he is young enough to know that sports figures who resist such accountability will still be followed and adored. The “I never asked to be a role model!” defense is certain to come. He is a poor example to children, but he is an excellent reminder to us all: heroes are still just human.

  6. As I was reading comments a thought struck me. Phelps is just one of many young sports stars trust into a role model position that didn’t want it and aren’t prepared for it. As Kathy points out many use the “I didn’t ask to be a role model” excuses. It is part of the it isn’t my fault defense that is way to common in our society. Yes, Phelps is young and prone to make dumb choices. However in contrast to Phelps I am reminded of Tim Tebow’s actions after the Gators only loss this season. In a press conference he took responsibility for the loss even though it wasn’t all his fault. He acted responsibly even though he is only 21.

  7. If this was Phelps first offense that would be one thing but on an internet news site a few days back I read that when he was 19 he was arrested for drunk driving. So, is this the beginning of a life filled with accesses and apologies for bad behavior? When anyone decides to be the best at what they do in sports they know that they will be looked up to by young people. I was also reading responses after an article on Phelps yesterday and most of them said that if marijuana would have been legal Phelps wouldn’t even be in the news. So sad but an honest reflection of times.

  8. I think the situations are different in two ways: one, I agree to a point with the assertion that Phelps is a kid and is doing stupid, kid-like things. More than that, he didn’t “put himself” into the spotlight that is on him; he just excelled at what he DID do, which is simply swim. He’s actually handled the attention very well, mostly by saying, “I’m not holding myself up as a role model at all.” He broke the law, and should suffer the consequences– which he will, at least because his endorsements will drop a bit.

    Haggard, on the other hand, is not a kid, and put himself into the spotlight he has– at least in a roundabout way, since he sought high-level leadership in the broader church, and once there soiled both his own name and the offices of leadership he occupied.

    But another thing that makes Haggard different (#2 from my original “two ways”) is that Haggard is a Christian. Even after being forced out as an evangelical pastor, he has repeatedly appealed to God’s forgiveness but hasn’t consistently (or even frequently) demonstrated publicly that he is willing to be accountable in the manner that God has framed for him (and all of us).

    The Scriptures offer good guidance in how to deal with sin, both private and public. The evangelical church has long had understood principles for discipline and restoration in the church. Oddly, the talk show and lecture circuits aren’t a part of those principles. If Haggard wishes to advance himself in the world, continue to sully the church’s reputation (“can you believe that they continue to reject him after he is so sincere?!?”), and capitalize on his own sin, he’s on the right track. If he truly wishes to re-join the church and even regain a place as a leader, he is pursuing the wrong path.

    Should Haggard be held to a higher standard? Yes, because he is both a professing Christian and because he aspired to a teaching office in God’s church (James 3:1). Phelps, on the other hand, is acting like a kid and a pagan– that doesn’t excuse him in God’s eyes, but we can’t expect him to have the conscience of a Christian without the Holy Spirit.

  9. The tragedy of Ted Haggard increases as he struggles to correct his sense of who he is, of what God requires of him. One might say that what it means to “abide in Christ” has become twisted in him and he’s having trouble getting straight again. He apparently needs the kleig lights to feel alive and worthy. Whether those lights were the motivation of young Ted we cannot know, but after many years of work and service, he found himself on the grand stage. Fallen from it, he now seems to understand that his journey of faith and reconciliation must lead back to that stage. I think that’s the lesson I’m studying–how do I understand my own worth in God’s sight? Is my life as graceless as Mr.Haggard’s? It used to be if a Christian expressed “true repentance”, then one could expect changed behavior from him or her. That was a key aspect of the mystery of God’s work in us. That was the joy and victory of repentance and faith –a truly changed life, something beyond mere human achievement.

  10. Thanks for all your comments. We seem to have more sympathy for Michael Phelps than Ted Haggard, if we have sympathy for either one. David Augsburger’s book, Helping People Forgive, is an excellent resource on this subject. Among other things Augsburger says that making excuses (“he’s young), or giving someone a pass (“we all sin”), and a host of other actions are not real forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the injured to the injurer and takes into account the desire for reconciliation. Both Phelps and Haggard have a long way to go in my estimation before they achieve reconciliation with those they have wronged. Read Augsburger’s book for some great insights into forgiveness. Forgiveness, he says, finally, comes from the community of faith which lives in the forgiveness of God. Food for thought. Thanks again for your comments on this very timely topic.

  11. I think the issue has to do with the position we allow people in “public” to attain. I still deal with my own sin, I am glad I don’t have to do it with the eyes of the world on me. Maybe I have a bad take on this, but are we surprised that people sin? I am not saying its OK, I am just not surprised by it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sin, so I guess I am used to it. My hope for both of them is that they get whatever help they need to work through their issues.

  12. I had to think awhile before I decided to comment. I feel that we have come too accustomed to apologies for public sins, especially by “celebrities”. We come to expect such behavior out of them so when in fact they do commit it we wait for the “I am sorry” and “it was because”. It is like knowing a song and waiting for the chorus to roll around.

    Personally, I am with you Chuck. I do not believe we should extend our hand of forgiveness just yet (not to say we shouldn’t in time). I hold Haggard more accountable due to his position and the Christian community he decided to join. His sin was not a private one, but a very public one. It has harmed the community and the community must hold him accountable to his sin. Not because they should point out sin and be self-righteous, but for the goal of reconciliation with the community.

    If the ancient Church held even emperors accountable for their sin and threatened banishment from the community if they did not do penance, then I believe the modern Church should too. We shouldn’t be so willing to accept the “sorry’s” and leave it at that.

    I believe in the Hauerwasian idea that when you belong to the Christian community then you don’t have the right to do whatever you want with your body. When you are baptized you become a member with one another and tell one another what you should and should not do with your bodies. So, when you commit adultery (which Haggard did) then you are no longer a member of “us” until you have done penance and reconciled yourself with the community that you have harmed.

    I would comment on Phelps but this comment is already too long.

  13. i’ve gotta hand it to Phelps for being man enough to acknowledge his actions and apologize — he’s still a decent role model despite the hypocritical media storm

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